dancing with architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House
Average Rating: ( 0 votes)
Although not as well known as, say, Falling Water or the Guggenheim, the Robie House is Wright's single most important project. It represented the peak of his Prairie Style, the culmination of the first and most important and original phase of his career, and the spark that inspired Modernism. It was also before his megalomania (aka jackass) phase kicked in.
Wright's primary client base back then was new money (they had no architectural association of what it meant to be rich) associated with technology (they were willing to lean forward on design), and Frederick Robie was no different. Robie was assistant manager and heir apparent to the Excelsior Supply House and had interest in bicycles and automobiles, even designing a bike-based auto. This love of technology and desire to have a different kind of house led him to Wright (Robie's wife, Lora, was surely also an influence, with her parents living near Wright's Dana-Thomas House  in Springfield). Wright designed the house in 1908 and 1909 with construction in 1909 and 1910 (Wright later attempted to predate the design of the house to 1906 so he could lay claim to perspective presentation ahead of the Europeans...).
Unlike his later houses, there's not a great deal of correspondence or drama associated with design and construction. Unlike latter-day Wright, the house was not over budget (in fact, it came in under budget: $58,500 of the $60,000 allotted for the entire project, land and furniture included). Well, there was a little drama: In late 1909 Wright had a mid-life crisis that led to him leaving his wife and six kids for a client's wife (Mamah Cheney), closing his architectural office, and embarking for Europe. However, he left construction oversight of the Robie House in good hands with Marion Mahoney.
This unfortunate turn in Wright's personal affairs led to Wright's catapult from a minor regional influence to worldwide influence. While in Europe, Wright published two volumes of his work with the German publisher Ernst Wasmuth in 1911. These portfolios dropped like atom bombs on Europe's budding Modernists, influencing all the major minds of the time, including Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Reitveld, Neutra, Schindler, Gropius, and others. And the Robie House was the creme-de-la-creme of Wright's work.
Sadly, the Robies only enjoyed their house for 14 months. Frederick Robie's father passed away in July 1909, leaving a number of debts to settle. And although Frederick was forward thinking on technology and architecture, he was Neanderthalic with respect to women, which resulted in Lora filing for divorce. After two other families lived in the house, the Chicago Theological Society bought the property and used the house as a dorm. In 1957, the Society announced plans to demolish the house to build a proper dormitory. Unusual for Wright, he became personally involved (at 90 years old) in saving the house, organizing a protest and declaring "It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy." He usually relished the reports of how difficult it was to tear down one of his structures. But even Wright knew that this house was special. He continued to visit the house after its completion, always taking visiting dignitaries to see the house.
After the house was saved (reportedly by the frats!), it exchanged hands several more times before the University of Chicago turned the house over to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in 1997. The Trust is returning the house to its original 1911 glory.